This is part 1 of a 2-part theological commentary on the recent film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Perhaps not as intensely anticipated, for me, as the Lord of the Ring Trilogy, the movie adaptation of the book The Hobbit was certainly at the top of my list of Must See films of 2012. Too bad it took until 2013 for me to see it, but that’s the way life goes.
I was pleasantly surprised by the film. I’ve read a number of critiques of it by professional film critics and they were not entirely flattering. The criticized some of the formulaic elements, the criticized what they saw as a manufactured villain, and the criticized the odd blend of light humor with the epic Lord of the Rings world. These are all relevant critiques and have some good points. However, my purpose of my film commentary is not to talk about the ins and outs of film-making, but to look at films as a medium by which we may understand the culture around us. So, this is where I’m going with my review of the Hobbit. Be warned. If you have not seen the film, there will be spoilers.
As I mention in my commentary on the theology behind the original Lord of the Rings Trilogy, when you are adapting a book to film, there is a question as to whether or not the main messages, themes, and ideas portrayed in the book are preserved in the film. In the case of that original trilogy, I suggest that the core of those themes are preserved even if there are some deviations concerning some of the details. When working with the film medium, you cannot have long segments of expository text to give back story or other details of the narrative. As much as there is a sense of art and message to film, the film industry justifies making a film by whether or not it will be profitable. You will not make money in an epic fantasy film if the characters are doing a lot of standing around talking.
For this reason, many of the additions to the film that are not a pure preservation of the original book are necessary in order to expound on elements of the story that, otherwise, would result in a rather boring movie. So, stories about the motives behind the dwarves wanting to reclaim their Kingdom, why Bilbo is telling the story, why the elves and the dwarves despise each other, and so forth, all play a role in telling the complete story. And, in truth, these “additional” elements were not made up out of whole-cloth by Peter Jackson and his helpers. Tolkien had a lot of story and history in his legendarium that is hinted at in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings that, unless you read books like the Silmarillion or The Unfinished Tales you will miss some of that nuance. Tolkien’s universe was more than just the story that we find in the few books that have fame. Tolkien created that universe fully formed with centuries of documented history.
However, those stories really didn’t play a role in the original publication of The Hobbit because that book was published first and then the rest of the legendary histories were written after the fact and during the writing of the main trilogy. So, if you read The Lord of the Rings first, you get this sense of epic fiction and immense, earth shattering events. If you then read The Hobbit afterwards, you wonder if it’s even the same world (note that the trolls in The Hobbit are comedic and bumbling while the trolls in The Lord of the Rings are fearsome war-beasts). Such, it appears, was the dilemma for Peter Jackson. His fans saw the first trilogy. Their expectations are for epic history and battles and events of massive consequence. The Hobbit, if presented as it was written, would leave those fans unsatisfied.
So, The Hobbit, as a film, does not present itself quite in the same way as the book. The book was written as a light-hearted novel, written with children in mind, introducing a world whose creator hadn’t fully fleshed out yet. The film was created to give the history and back story behind the events of high import as prevented in the other film trilogy. While some of the light-hearted nature is still present (the party scene at Bag End and some of the dwarvish antics during their journey), the tone is certainly more reminiscent of The Lord of the Ring. However, as with the main trilogy, Tolkien’s ideas seem to come through in the adaptation.
Overt Film Message: Belonging
Briefly, I would like to point out the main message of the film as presented overtly by the characters, plot, and dialogue. The resolution at the end of the film seems to aim squarely at the idea that everyone desires to belong to something bigger than just themselves. There are a number of points that show this theme, both for the dwarves and for Bilbo.
First, with the dwarves, with Thorin’s back story of the fall of Erebor, of his years of wandering as an exile, of the plight of the dwarves in Middle-Earth and their life of being refugees, there is certainly a strong sense that the dwarves feel this need. Even the young dwarves, Kili and Fili, get caught up in the idea of having a home, of the adventure of taking back the ancient dwarvish Kingdom, and of restoring the fortunes of dwarves. Kili and Fili were more on that fame and fortune and glory of the adventure. But the scene of the lament at Bag End, where the elder dwarves, through song, reminisce on that date many years before when they lost their home, you can see that for those older dwarves, it wasn’t the fame and fortunate that mattered, it was the home-coming. The gold was important, not for wealth, but because it was theirs. It represented the Kingdom of Erebor. It represented home.
Bilbo’s desire for belonging is a little less obvious than the dwarves. It seems, in the opening of the film, that Bilbo was comfortable in his home. He belonged in Hobbiton and was satisfied with his life as it was. He had reputation, he had comfort, he had a home, and he lacked nothing. So why did he change his mind and leave the Shire to throw in his hat with the dwarves? I believe the key is in the conversation with Gandalf, both where they “first” meet as well as concerning the contract. Bilbo, apparently, has a family history behind him of adventure. His Took ancestors were famous (or infamous) and were always partaking in adventure and excitement. There is a sense of a portion of Bilbo’s family that he has lost touch with, a part of the family that seems bigger than his comfortable little life. He finds himself surrounded by dwarves talking about grand schemes and plans and he feels the pull of his own personal history. By throwing his lot in with the dwarves, he is connecting himself to his own past, a past that he has forgotten. The Tookish past is mentioned in the book, but Jackson brings it out in the film in order, it seems, to tell this story of finding a home.
Culturally speaking, in the United States at least, there are a lot of people who feel lost and disconnected. As much as we have technology like Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, Tumblr, and other social media outlets, we are still alone. With all the information that we have inundating us through our phones, the internet, the television, we are still alone. There is a desire to connect to something outside of ourselves. One simply needs to go into a bar, a Starbucks, or some other gathering place to see how many people show up to feel like they belong. One of the things I’ve heard about people who find a church, especially one that has a good sense of community, is that they have found a home, a place where they feel like part of the family. If people don’t feel that connection, they won’t be back.
I don’t think that, necessarily, the Christian message should be one of inviting people to epic adventures. However, people do want to belong. Families are shattering, the centers of community are fragmented, and with more and more technology “connecting” us, ironically, isolation is on the rise. People are hungering for that connection, that sense of belonging. Bilbo didn’t feel like he belonged and so contemplated leaving. But when he realized that the dwarves were even worse, he threw in his lot with them so that they would be able to find their own home. Perhaps this is what we Christians need to do. Those of us who have found a “home” community need to step out for a time to bring that sense, that hope of community to others. Perhaps you’ll bring them into your own home, or perhaps you will help them build one of their own. But we have a community centered in Christ that the world is hungering for. I think we can see, in The Hobbit, by the adaptation that Jackson applied to the story, that this idea resonates with our current culture.
My next post will be looking at the more subtle theme of the redemption of the world coming, not through the great and powerful, but through the little things.